Ore of the Woods

A work in progress can surprise you one day, suddenly endowed with permanence even as it remains incomplete. What is finished is the experience of something as new. And maybe a reversal has occurred: the process has stepped into our role, now it is shaping us. Now it is determining its own course, with us as its proxy.

Our cabin sits atop an improbable hill on an oblong, unruly patch of the only land I’ve ever owned. It has been witness to Anker’s unfolding childhood and it is the most likely suspect behind the way I have pulled back from recreational travel. Ruda. The name of the nearby village that lends its meek administrative heft to our wooded sector (zoned for recreational use and as separate from the village as it gets) means ore, and it’s the name of at least forty-four villages throughout Poland. Anker might have been three when he inadvertently coined Ruda Lasu, a swift possessive that conveys just what it is we profitably extract from our cabin’s surroundings. Note that las is the Polish for both forest and woods, and most Poles will deploy the former term in English, even when it’s the latter that better conveys their more casual, non-primeval meaning.

There is an evocative Japanese term, shinrin yoku, for being among trees. Forest bathing, the translation issues, and the proof follows: those volatile wood compounds wafting from trees are powerful tonics for the mind and body, so visiting a forest for sport and play helps seal the deal on a healthy lifestyle. (Don’t studies sometimes go to show the most obvious things?) But at our cabin we don’t just bathe: we get inundated. In shinrin yoku terms, we transform into creatures of the tree-sea for days at a time. Readjusting to the city is at times an ordeal (because city air is not air at all to a recalibrated body), at times a breeze (because everything is a breeze after one’s been mainlining the breath of trees).

Until a few years ago, the cabin served as my father’s little-used writing retreat, in our family since the late 90s, when my dad bought it at the behest of a friend whose history of summering in the Ruda woods had comparatively ancient origins, though it would end abruptly with the friend’s early death just years later. As for my mother, she likes to say Ruda is too far from the philharmonic. (Actually, it’s what I like to say as I claim to be quoting her.) And while it is true that my mom is neither outdoorsy nor reclusive, I suspect the real reason she never came to call the cabin her own was that, like me, she didn’t know what to do with a clunky 1970s kit house crammed with exiled furniture, defunct fax machines, and a stock of long-expired non-perishables in the kitchen.

My own visits before Anker came along were no prediction of the love I would eventually gain for the place. Sparse, haphazard, forgotten—these were stopovers between a life paused and a life resumed. Each split my attention between awe for the trees and disdain for the decor. I tended to sleep on the front porch, in a sleeping bag, avoiding the interior unless I needed to use the kitchen, bathroom, or sauna (which came with the house and held zero interest for my dad but plenty for me). Over weekends with friends who have since drifted away, I don’t recall even imagining what it might be like to clear out the clutter, much less remodel the place in my image. The rules for respecting my father’s choices were unspoken but absolute: fantasies did not wander beyond certain boundaries. But life would surprise me yet, finding new spaces to grow into, and new sources of desire, and perseverance, and perhaps courage.

Anker and I first began planting our flag here during the summer of 2013. It was then that it became clear my half-Danish boy and I would stay put in Poland, and it was then that the process of redefining my relationship to my parents had reached a comfortable plateau: now they seemed less my looming family of origin (one step from me on the family tree) and more the adoring grandparents, in our life on my terms (a full three hops away). Now asking my father to let me take charge of the cabin seemed less a selfish act and more one of parenting. In fact, I’m not sure there was asking involved: it may well be that he offered.

So out they went: the rugs and the file cabinets, lurid velour armchairs and the TV cable strewn across the worn roof. What followed was a new roof, and with it two skylights, illuminating the ever-dim pine-lined house in a way that at last revealed possibilities. In 2014 came the mattresses: four of them, luxuriously thick but placed plainly on the floor in the two compact bedrooms. In 2015, a sleek grey kitchen pushed out the fractured remains of the old. We also greeted the first of the bonfires, safely relegated to a clearing toward the back of the property, one responsibly outfitted with a faucet and running water. With these bonfires, the fallen twigs and branches finally had somewhere to go, revealing the mossy vibrance of our wooded lot. As the season was concluding—these are not winterized properties, so before the frosts come the pipes get drained and the house is bolted up until springtime—my parents signed over the deed to the house and the land. Ruda Lasu was mine, in theory and in practice.

This was also the year when new neighbors bought the adjacent property with plans to live there year-round. What a couple, too: she a nature conservationist, he a massage therapist, both raven-haired and of the right age and impressed with my cooking. They were versed in Ayurveda and as interested in us as we were in them. But one January day, just a half-year later, the cabin they had been so lovingly renovating burned to the ground. Our new neighbors became our former neighbors, and the view from our deck transformed into an unthinkable one, of a scar in the clearing where a house had once stood, mirroring ours for decades.

In 2016, the faulty wiring was fixed and sturdy new lights replaced the sconces that had bothered me for years. Again the difference was subtractive in quality: an improvement of discord removed. A new vanity and pristine toilet were installed in the bathroom, and next to them a small-capacity washing machine. The work lagged, but what a summer it was come August: unfettered by the tedium of hauling soiled laundry back to Warsaw, rich with the splendor of hanging clothes on a line stretched between our very own pines.

For all these improvements, my generous father picked up the bill—with the signature vehemence that inflected his practice of generosity. I may not know exactly what my needs and wants wound up costing (his distinction, not mine), but I do have the sense of another kind of price. With every change I made to the house, my dad’s wistfulness grew. On infrequent visits, he would pace the property, joking about notions of paradise and loss, the humor a poor cover for what might have been boundless regret. At the same time, my father’s inability to recognize the value of an airy, pleasant interior was subsiding, and with it his reluctance toward my enthusiasm. Each year, at some point I would mention that Anker and I had spent thirty or forty nights at the cabin that season alone—and my father would say that he probably spent as many nights here over fifteen years. He would sometimes ask if he could borrow the house for a few days, and I would often offer. I even made a habit of stacking kindling and logs in the fireplace before leaving for Warsaw, so he might enjoy a fire upon arrival. He asked and I offered, but he never did come, and I was not really surprised, nor was I exactly disappointed, because the boundaries of his territorialism marked mine, too. He knew and I knew: my invitations were well-intentioned sentiments of gratitude and decency—but I was not about to let him impart chaos on my order.

When the 2017 season arrived, things were different. The quarter-mile of disintegrating chicken wire encircling the property struck me not as in need of replacing, but as gracefully weathered and integrated with the land. The cabin’s foundation seemed fine, painting it no longer a priority. Resealing the shower could wait and so could trimming the trees and planting blackberries. Though unfinished, our summer house was complete. And in Warsaw my father was dying.

Some of our last exchanges were about Ruda. About how we both couldn’t believe the renovations are finally done. About how amazing it is to be headed to the cabin for a brisk April weekend. I hope you don’t mind that I’m leaving, I chirped to my suffering father, and for a minute we shared in my elation. That evening, upon arrival, I sent my father the usual text. We made it safely, the woods are sublime. Thank you, goodnight. As always, I got his reply. How could I know these would be the last words my father would ever write? Or his last lucid response to my stab at communication?

I was a city child, raised is the vicinity of universities and philharmonics, and then I was a city adult, well-adapted to living on a seventh floor and working from home. I am coming late to the experiences a summer home offers, discovering their dazzling, edifying, restorative magic alongside my son, my wonder a lot like his, if more inhibited. Every day eighty-five hours long and perfectly quiet. Books. Board games. Wild strawberries edging the house, tart bilberries for miles. Kanika, our family’s husky, now twelve. Hammocks. Homemade pesto. Fat mattresses that don’t threaten knocked shins or stubbed toes. Laundry aflutter on the line. Composting things. Sprouting things. The resin-scented heat of that sauna. Tending to the herbs. Hunting wild mushrooms. Preferring that there is no dishwasher. Never making trips to the store. Having no more furniture than necessary. Getting sweaty stoking a bonfire with a thousand fallen twigs. Dabbling in pottery. Dabbling in having company. Every day, sweeping the deck of the sand that is everywhere and of the copious dust shed by the evergreens. Having bad reception, forgetting the internet. Magazines. Jigsaw puzzles. A child’s toddler-era toys, a father’s ashes. And a ritual stacking of kindling and logs in the fireplace before leaving for Warsaw.

The summer of 2017 is a time of mourning, but it is defiant with pleasure and tangled with paradox. A house stripped of a man winds up brimming with his spirit. Everything is a comment on a relationship, each detail evidence of a father’s generosity. Opposites, it turns out, aren’t necessarily made of difference. Consider, for instance, how identically unthinkable it was, for either of us, to attempt some way of owning the cabin together. But, in our way, haven’t we all along? This place—this stage for so much living—it has been an ore of more than we imagined. A victory for me. For my father, a sacrifice.